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Monthly Archives: August 2012

Independent Play – Starting Early

Establishing independent playtime can be a great gift to both children and parents. It allows the child to learn to entertain themselves and also provides a wonderful environment for experimental learning, since mom and dad aren’t there to help them out. For the parents, independent playtime means a break in the day that they can use to accomplish any number of things (or accomplish nothing by cruising the internet the whole time- not that I’ve ever done that), knowing full well that their child is in a safe environment.

We started Brandon out with independent play when he was only a few months old, and now at 2 years, he will play happily by himself for up to an hour in his room (he might actually go longer, but that’s the longest I’ve ever kept him in there). On most days, we do two 30-minute sessions – once while I’m showering in the morning and once in the evening while I’m cooking dinner. He actually looks forward to it, and is more well behaved on days when he gets some time alone. We started Rylan out early as well, and now at nearly 6 months, he does 15-minutes on a blanket while I prep lunch, and 30-minutes in a playpen while I cook dinner.

Here’s some of my keys to implementing independent playtime for your young baby (before they can crawl):

  • Start Early – I know it’s hard to part with your little love in the first weeks they are home from the hospital, but as soon as you can stand it, leave them alone on a playmat (or under a mobile in the crib – just need something for them to look at) for a few minutes at a time, several times during the day. They may fall asleep during these early weeks (and then you do the happy dance), but as time passes they will become more engaged.
  • Start Small – Try 5 minutes twice a day, then 10 minutes twice a day, etc. until you work up to a point you are comfortable with. The key is getting your baby used to the fact that they don’t need mom and dad there to entertain them all the lit long day.
  • Schedule the Time – If your baby is a little older and has a good routine going, make independent play a regularly scheduled part of your day. Try and do it at a similar time each day, so the baby knows what to expect (they know more than you would think).
  • Create the Space – I currently use a blanket on the floor (over padding) and a playpen. Whatever you use make sure it is safe. If your baby is rolling over, they could easily roll off a blanket, so you have to be sure there is nothing nearby that could be harmful. If I’m going to leave the room at any point, I use the playpen just to be sure. I also use a video monitor if I’m leaving the room.
  • Hide – Your baby will be better able to focus and less likely to call out for you if they don’t see you, but you still need to be able to observe them. Try and keep yourself out of their line of sight, but where you can still safely monitor how things are going. I love a video monitor for this.
  • Make it Fun – Put a mobile on the playpen, some mirrors in the corners, and of course, a few soft toys. The toys should be things that the baby can explore independently and safely. Be careful to not put too many things at one time though, as you want them to learn to focus and not be over stimulated (which can lead to crankiness very quickly in small babies). Rotate the toys every so often to keep it interesting.
  • Avoid Overuse – Don’t leave your baby in independent play for so long that they become bored and frustrated. This is a time meant to ease them into it, and for their (and your) enjoyment. It’s great to be able to comfortably leave your baby in a playpen while you attend to another child or other emergency, just try not to abuse it.

Have you had any luck/problems with independent playtime? Do your kids enjoy it?

And don’t forget to comment here with your ideas of a 7-30 day fitness/diet challenge to win a sleek kitchen scale!


Peanut Butter Nutella Cookies

I think you just need to read the title to know this cookie is going to be good. It’s like the taste of a peanut butter cookie, but with a much chewier texture, and this delicious chocolaty swirl with a hint of hazelnut. It’s just as familiar as it is different. My husband and I quickly agreed that this was the best peanut butter cookie we have ever had. This is yet another jewel I found on Pinterest, via The Sisters Cafe – go check them out!

Peanut Butter Nutella Cookies

Adapted from The Sisters Cafe

2 sticks butter, room temp
2/3 cup peanut butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
2 2/3 cup flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1/3 (heaping) cup Nutella

  • Preheat oven to 350°F.
  • With a mixer, cream the butter, peanut butter, sugars, eggs, and vanilla until smooth.
  • In a seperate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt.
  • Gradually mix dry ingredients into wet.
  • Disperse spoonfuls of Nutella in dough, then use a butter knife to swirl throughout.
  • Place dough in fridge for 15 minutes (to allow Nutella to firm up).
  • Scoop dough in heaping tablespoons onto cookie sheets.
  • Bake for approx. 10 minutes, until slightly browned on edges.
  • Allow to cool on pan for a few minutes, then move to cooling racks.

I also wanted to send out huge hugs to Jess over at A Lot On Your Plate (who has great tips for improving your life and a fabulous new design to boot!) and Trkingmomoe (who has loads of delicious recipes!) for the awards they gave me. Thanks so much ladies!!


And don’t forget to comment here with your ideas of a 7-30 day fitness/diet challenge to win a sleek kitchen scale!

{Giveaway!} Get Healthier Challenge

I think we could all use a little motivation to get healthier, and what better motivation than a fun challenge! Slimkicker is a healthy living and fitness app that provides forums, calorie counting tools, challenges, and giveaways to entice users to make healthy changes. You earn points by counting calories or completing challenges that can be used towards rewards. They want to hear from you what diet or fitness challenge you’d like to participate in, like not drinking soda or eating processed meats for a week.

Leave a comment with your idea for a challenge, then SlimKicker will pick their favorite, and the winning commenter will get this Ozeri Epicurean Kitchen Scale!

Comments will be accepted until 8 pm Eastern, September 2nd. I look forward to hearing what everyone comes up with!

Mexican Lasagna

I have totally been having one of those days. And at the end of a day like today, grilled chicken and steamed veggies just ain’t gonna cut it. But I also don’t want to spend hours in the kitchen cooking up a feast worthy of a major guilt trip afterwards. I just want something yummy (i.e., not healthy) that will be ready in the time it takes Special Agent OSO to do his 3 special steps. So Mexican Lasagna is what’s on the menu tonight in our house. There might also be a michelada or two (or 3).

Mexican Lasagna

Adapted from Eva’s Kitchen

cooking spray
1 lb ground beef
salt & pepper
1/2 cup low sodium chicken broth
5 flour tortillas
8 oz. salsa (not chunky)
1/2 can black beans, rinsed
8 oz. shredded Mexican cheese
4 oz. sour cream
1 4.5 oz. can green chilies (optional)

  • Preheat oven to 375°F, and coat a 8-inch cake pan with cooking spray.
  • Season beef with salt and pepper and brown over medium heat.
  • Pour broth into a sided container and dip each tortilla in, making it moist but not soggy.
  • Place tortilla at the bottom of the pan, then top with 2 T sour cream, 1/4 cup meat, a scattering of black beans, 2 T salsa, 1/3 cup shredded cheese, and 2 T chilies, if using.
  • Top with another tortilla and repeat with 3 more layers of filling, finish with a final tortilla on top.
  • Spread remaining salsa and cheese on top, covering the final tortilla.
  • Spray one side of aluminum foil with cooking spray, and place that side down on top of pan.
  • Bake for 30 minutes, serve hot with additional salsa and sour cream if desired.

Carolina Style Pulled Pork

I’ve tried a lot of pulled pork recipes in my time, and this is by far my favorite. It’s North Carolina style barbecue, so it’s a vinegar based sauce, which is there to serve as a compliment to the meat instead of overpowering it. The meat itself is super flavorful after chilling out in the fridge all night with a serious dry rub. It’s combined with smoked ham hocks that give it an awesome depth of flavor. Plus, it’s super easy and cooks all day in your slow cooker. I served it with corn, kale chips, and blackberry cobbler. If you are still searching for that perfect pulled pork recipe, I would definitely give this one a try!

Carolina Style Pulled Pork

Adapted from Slow Cooker Revolution, 6-8 servings

6 T brown sugar, divided
1/4 cup sweet paprika
1 1/2 T chili powder
1 T ground cumin
salt & pepper
1 (4-pound) boneless pork butt roast
2 smoked ham hocks
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup cider vinegar
3/4 cup ketchup
hamburger buns

  • Combine 3 T sugar, paprika, chili powder, cumin, 2 tsp salt, and 2 tsp pepper in bowl.
  • Pierce pork with a fork all over, then cover with spice rub. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
  • Place ham hocks in slow cooker, position pork on top, and pour broth over.
  • Cook for 9-10 hours on low, or 5-6 hours on high, until pork is tender.
  • Transfer pork & hocks to a bowl and, using forks, shred into bite-size pieces (it will further break-up when mixed with sauce).
  • Discard any bones, skin, or excess fat.
  • After letting braising liquid settle for 5 minutes, skim off fat using a spoon.
  • Strain liquid into a saucepan and simmer for 20-30 minutes.
  • Whisk in vinegar, ketchup, and remaining 3 T of sugar, and bring back to a simmer.
  • Season with S&P to taste (note it will taste very vinegary on its own).
  • Toss pork with 1-2 cups sauce, adding enough to keep meat moist.
  • Serve on buns with additional sauce.

Setting the Mood for Sleep

Setting the appropriate mood is one of the most important things you can do to encourage your child to sleep. I think it’s helpful to remember that you can’t actually force your child to sleep, but you can make the environment as relaxing, comfortable, and conducive to sleep as possible. Like most things, consistency is the key, and maintaining a similar sleep environment and routine will allow your child to anticipate bed and nap times. Here’s what has helped my kids:

1) Keep it dark – Most people simply sleep better in the dark. I recommend getting blackout shades (these are a great, inexpensive option) or even taping up black garbage bags over the windows. If you are able to blackout a room during the day, there will be consistency between night and daytime and you won’t have to worry about early wakings due to sunlight. While some older children might need a small nightlight, young babies don’t yet know to be afraid of the dark and can actually be distracted by small lights (like on a monitor or temperature device). We use black tape to cover over any small lights in the room.

2) Play with the temperature – I know that a lot of experts argue that we need cooler temperatures to sleep well, but I think that a comfortable sleeping temperature is a personal preference and you need to experiment to see what works best for your child. Some like to be bundled up, but have the air at a cooler temp, while others might want minimal clothing in a warmer environment. Pay attention to your child and see when they tend to sleep best, and also what they were wearing. Personally, my kids sleep in full footed sleepers (or long pjs with socks) year round, but Rylan likes it set cooler than Brandon. For infants, you have to be mindful that you don’t want to overdress them since it can be a SIDS risk.

3) Love the lovey – An age appropriate lovey can be a huge comfort to a child at bedtime. If you are strict about it, and allow the lovey only to be used during sleep times, it can also be something that your child actually looks forward to come bed or nap time. This is important to remember if you don’t want your future toddler to walk around with a worn out blankie all day. Personally, I don’t have too many qualms about this, and Brandon can have his lovey if we are traveling, watching tv, or going for a long run – but that’s a whole different topic! A lovey is also a great replacement for the pacifier. I am not a fan of the pacifier. If your child is old enough to locate their pacifier in the dark and pop it in their mouths, that’s fine, but I don’t want to be the mama doing that for them all hours of the night. My kids both suck on their lovies, and have been able to find them themselves if they are dropped since they were a few months old (3 months is when I first introduced a lovey to Rylan).

4) White noise – A white noise machine is an easy way to block out any errant noise and can be very soothing to a baby. The machine should be positioned far from the crib, but turned to a level loud enough that it will actually be effective. We bring ours with us every time we travel, which is a great way to signal to your child that it’s time to sleep even if they are in a different environment.

5) Make it comfy – A comfortable but firm mattress is a good place to splurge when it comes to the nursery. Some kids can sleep on harder surfaces, like a playpen, but if we are traveling we like to line the playpen with quilts (underneath the sheet) so that it is more cushioned. Both my kids also like fuzzier sheets.

6) Have a consistent routine – This is probably the most important point. The actions you take before you bring your child into their room (which has been prepped accordingly) should be consistent so as to give them a clear signal that it is time for them to relax and sleep. Before bed you might do a bath, bottle, book, and prayers. You can then do a modified version before naps – like a book & prayers. I also like to do the pre-bed/nap routine outside of the nursery, so that when we walk into the room it is already dark and the noise machine is on. Whatever it is you do, just try and stick to it each time you put your child to sleep.

What are some of the things that you’ve done to help make your child’s environment more sleep conducive? Have you stuck with the same things or has your child’s preferences changed over time?

African Drumsticks

There’s something about marinating meat that gets me excited. It’s such an easy way to impart a lot of flavor, and usually you can do the majority of the work in advance. It’s so nice to know that all I have left to do for dinner is to pop it in the oven. Like most New Yorkers, we are sorely lacking a grill (yet another thing that tops my “dreams of suburbia” list), so this is a great replacement recipe for when you would normally do bbq chicken. The flavor penetrates all the way through the meat, but isn’t overpowering, making this recipe pretty fool-proof for most palates (including children). The meat is also super tender, practically falling off the bone. You could easily set the chicken under the broiler for the last few minutes to give the skin a few charred bits if that’s more your speed as well. I served it with some fresh heirloom tomatoes and corn. A simple and fresh tasting summer dinner. Hope you enjoy!

African Drumsticks

Adapted from Nigella Kitchen

1/3 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup ketchup
2 tsp. English mustard
1 tsp ground ginger
1 T apricot jam
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
8-10 chicken drumsticks
1 T garlic flavored oil

  • Mix together Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, mustard, ground ginger, apricot jam, and chopped onion.
  • Add chicken and marinade overnight in the refrigerator.
  • Put oil in a rimmed baking sheet, and tilt so that the oil covers the pan.
  • Arrange chicken snugly in pan then top with any remaining marinade.
  • Cook for 45 minutes – 1 hour, turning at least once.

Brandon 2 Year Summary

I know Brandon has been 2 for a while now, but I’m finally getting around to writing about his great 2-year old self. I’m in a bit of denial, I feel like we were just celebrating his first birthday. Guess time flies when you add a pregnancy and newborn to the mix! I’m really trying to live in the moment with him, as I’m sure with school and activities increasing in the coming years we won’t have as much quality time (also trying not to daydream about the bazillion things I’ll be able to do with him in school all day!).

Brandon has really come out of his shell this past year. He always erred on the timid side, but has become much more assertive with adults and children and has also gotten more involved in the classes and playdates that we go to. This summer we’ve done soccer and music classes in the park, and he really loves both. At the end of soccer he is dog tired and dirty, so if nothing else, it’s a great way for him to run out some of his energy. Music has always been one of his favorite things (he must get this from Brad) and currently, he can often be found walking the house with his mini guitar in hand. There’s always some kind of kiddie music playing here. Mickey hotdog song is the most requested. 🙂

Our biggest struggles recently have been with whining and eating. He babbles constantly and his word know-how is growing every day, but he gets really frustrated when we don’t understand him, which usually leads to whining. He’s only had a handful of what I would call temper tantrums, and we generally put him in his crib to cool off when he does. Hopefully as his vocabulary increases and he learns other ways of asking for what he wants the whining will subside. As for eating, Brandon is a skinny kid who does not like to eat, so we naturally have problems. Normally, I would say that he will eat when he’s hungry and not to worry about it, but weight actually is a bit of an issue for him so we’ve tried nearly everything to get him additional calories. Dessert at every meal, creative & fun presentation, serving something I know he likes, etc. Not too much has worked and I am certainly open to ideas! Lately, I’ve been serving his meals in muffin tins and not letting him leave the table without at least trying something from every section. This has cut down on some of our battles, but we are still giving him pediasure after dinner to make sure he gets at least those calories before bed.


On a positive note with regards to the usual toddler struggles, sleeping is great! He still does nearly 12 hours at night and takes a 2 1/2 – 3 hour nap every day. I am so glad we did sleep training with him early on, it has paid dividends at this point. He’s still in a crib, but before Rylan came, we bought him a new one that converts to an adorable toddler bed, so we can switch whenever he seems to be ready for it. He’s totally content in the crib right now so I don’t think we will switch for a while. Independent play has also been amazing. While the Ipad is currently his favorite toy, he will play beautifully by himself in his room for up to an hour at a time. I love it!

One of the biggest changes for Brandon this year was that he became a big brother. For the most part, Brandon thinks of Rylan in a similar capacity to the dog. He likes him and is often amused by the funny baby things he does, but he still wants to know that he can have Mommy & Daddy’s attention when desired. He’s been incredibly gentle thus far. He really enjoys bringing out all the baby toys and piling them on top of Rylan. He is also Daddy’s helper at bath time and will use a cup to rinse off the baby. Rylan doesn’t seem to mind, and is almost always entertained and enthralled with his big brother.

This has been an amazing time for me as a mother, as I feel like you can practically see the wheels turning and the connections being made in that little 2-year old mind. He’s starting school in a month and I can only imagine what he is going to come home with to show us.

Here’s a typical day in the life of Brandon:

7:15 – wake-up, get dressed, drink juice/eat cheerios/play in nursery while Mom feeds Rylan
7:45 – breakfast
8:15 – chores (clear table, brush teeth, feed Suki)
8:30 – room time (independent play)
9-11 – outside for class/run/gym/playground
11 – free play
11:30 – dvd or Ipad
12 – lunch
12:45-3:30 – nap
3:30 – snack & play!
4:30 – learning/crafts with Mom
5 – room time (independent play)
5:30 – dvd or Ipad
6 – Dad comes home (highlight of his day!) and dinner
7 – bath with Dad and bottle of pediasure, family reading time
7:30 – Bed!!

Pink Lemonade Bars

Are y’all as addicted to Pinterest as I am? I could totally just browse for hours, and at the end, I actually kinda feel productive. Unlike just cruising facebook or some other time sucker website, I have something to show for my time wasting – fabulous new ideas for organization, recipes, outfits, decorating, etc. I even know 100 uses for baking soda! Granted I will probably use only 1% of these, but who cares, the other 99% are there just in case. Like the recipe pin I found for pink lemonade pound cake. It ended up the actual recipe sounded not-so-fabulous, but as fate had it, Deb had just posted a recipe for these pink lemonade bars. It was meant to be.

These are like your typical lemon bar, but with a slight berry flavor and this really pretty magenta-like color. When I originally made them I decreased the lemon juice and increased the raspberry, thinking it would make them less tart and therefore, more appealing to my toddler. I wish I hadn’t, as I missed the tart, so I’m posting the original recipe’s proportions below. If you like your lemon bars on the gooier side, decrease the flour by a tablespoon. As is, they are delicious, it’s totally just a preference thing. These would be absolutely perfect for a girly party (baby/wedding shower) or any hot summer day when you want something rich but refreshing.  They are just too pretty to pass up!

Pink Lemonade Bars
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

For cookie layer:
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp lemon zest
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cubed
1 cup flour

For the lemonade layer:
1 cup raspberries
2 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/3 cup AP flour (1 T less or more if you want them gooier)
confectioners sugar

Cookie Layer:

  • Preheat oven to 350°F and coat a 8×8 in . baking pan with nonstick spray (or line with parchment).
  • In food processor pulse together the sugar, zest, and salt.
  • Add butter and pulse until evenly dispersed.
  • Add flour and pulse just until mixture is combined.
  • Press dough into pan.
  • Bake for 15 minutes, then set out to cool slightly.

Lemonade Layer:

  • Rinse out food processor and puree raspberries.
  • Pour puree through a fine-mesh sieve over a bowl (you will need to press with a spatula to get out all the juice).
  • In a bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar, and lemon juice until smooth.
  • Whisk in 3 T of puree, then stir in flour.
  • Pour on top of crust and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until bars barely jiggle and the edges are slightly golden.
  • Cool completely in fridge then cut into squares.
  • Dust with powdered sugar before serving.

Chicken Cordon Bleu Pasta

Craving something cheesy, salty and carb-coma inducing? Well, look no further! This dish is like restaurant style mac and cheese taken to the extreme. It has pretty much anything you could ask for at the end of a long day – bacon, cheese, pasta, ham and even a little chicken for good measure. You will eat it, your kids will eat it, then you’ll all eat it again for lunch the next day because it’s just darn addicting (isn’t all mac & cheese?).

Chicken Cordon Bleu Pasta
Adapted from Chef in Training —-> head on over and check her out!

12 oz penne pasta, cooked
2 cups heavy cream
8 oz cream cheese
1/2 tsp onion salt
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1 1/2 cup shredded swiss cheese (separated)
3 chicken cutlets, cooked & cubed
4 strips bacon, cooked & crumbled
1/2 cup ham, diced
bread crumbs

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  • Over medium low, heat cream cheese until melted, then stir in heavy cream, onion salt and garlic powder. Adjust seasoning to taste.
  • Stir in 1 cup cheese until melted and smooth.
  • In a 9×13 in. baking dish, combine pasta, cheese sauce, chicken, bacon and ham. Top with remaining cheese and breadcrumbs.
  • Bake for 15 minutes, until hot and cheese has melted.
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